HC Deb 13 June 1961 vol 642 cc211-7
The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement on the Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Breaches of Security at the Underwater Detection Establishment at Portland.

The Government are greatly indebted to Sir Charles Romer and his colleagues for the speed and thoroughness with which they have investigated the circumstances of this case. Their Report is based on an exhaustive examination of a very considerable body of evidence and its conclusions are unanimous. In view of the special secrecy of some of the matters which the Committee had to investigate, I am satisfied that it would not be in the public interest to publish the full text of its Report. I am, however, arranging for a summary of its findings, which the Government accept, to be circulated in the OFFICIAL REPORT.

These findings fall broadly into three groups First, the Committee criticises, in general terms, certain defects in the Admiralty organisation for implementing security policy and procedures. Secondly, it criticises certain individuals at Portland for specific shortcomings in maintaining adequate security. Thirdly, it finds that no blame attaches to the immigration authorities and that the counter-espionage operations of the Security Service in this case were carried out with efficiency.

The first group of these findings is of special relevance to the current examination by the Radcliffe Committee of security procedures in the public service as a whole, and the Romer Report has, therefore, been referred to that Committee, which will, I am sure, take full account of it in its inquiry. Without prejudice to any recommendations which may be made by the Radcliffe Committee, the Board of Admiralty is taking steps, first, to review its internal organisation for implementing security policy in the light of the critcisms of the Romer Committee, and, secondly, to impress upon all its staffs the need for strict compliance with security instructions.

The Admiralty is also considering what action should be taken as regards the individuals specifically blamed by the Romer Report.

Mr. Gaitskell

The House will, no doubt, wish to put further questions to the Prime Minister after hon. Members have had an opportunity of looking at the summary which is to be circulated. May I ask the Prime Minister whether, for the convenience of hon. Members, copies of the summary could be made available in the Library today, since, presumably, the Press will have the summary? I think that many hon. Members would wish to see it straight away.

Meanwhile, since it appears from what the Prime Minister has told us that the Report is severely critical of the Admiralty in this matter, may I ask him three questions?

First, is the Admiralty taking steps to tighten up the security arrangements, not only at the Underwater Detection Establishment at Portland, but also in all Admiralty establishments?

Secondly, was the Committee satisfied with the arrangements for liaison between the Admiralty and the security services, and, if not, what steps are being taken to put this right?

Thirdly, on the question of Ministerial responsibility, may I ask him which Minister is responsible for seeing that there is proper security in the Admiralty? Is it the First Lord of the Admiralty, or will the general question of Ministerial responsibility, and the possible reversion to the Prime Minister's office of the Security Service, be considered by the Radcliffe Committee?

The Prime Minister

I have arranged that copies of the summary should be placed in the Library now.

On the steps which the First Lord and the Board of Admiralty are taking, not only in connection with this particular naval establishment but in all naval establishments, which includes in that phrase Admiralty Headquarters itself, while waiting for any further proposals made by the Radcliffe Committee, to carry out the proposals and suggestions of the Romer Committee, that is being done.

I am studying the liaison between the Security Service and the Departments. I am bound to say that I think that it is better in some Departments than in others, although I still think that we do not want to have an independent Security Service—a Gestapo—for that has great dangers. I think that we must not push this to the other extreme and say that it has no rights and is called in only when the Department wants it. We have to get a balance between the extreme position of a police operating on its own and the absolute right of its not being able to operate until it is sent for by the Department. I think that is what the right hon. Gentleman means by liaison, and though it can be improved, it already works better in some Departments than others.

On the question of Ministerial responsibility, I still think that each Minister must be responsible for security in his own Department, unless it hands over the whole thing to an outside police force, which, I believe, would be contrary to our traditions and character. At the same time, on the question of responsibility, the actual responsibility at present rests on the Home Secretary, who is responsible for the security forces, their discipline, pay and organisation, but I retain a general responsibility for seeing that security is maintained. I think that from the Radcliffe Committee we may get a method of getting the advantages of better liaison without the disadvantages of making it subject to an outside independent police system.

Dame Irene Ward

May I ask my right hon. Friend whether the Romer Committee saw those security officers who had special knowledge and who volunteered to give information to the Committee? In other words, did the Committee get down to the people who had the knowledge and consider their knowledge?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. Of course, a Committee of this character naturally took evidence from the Security Service and made every possible use of its evidence.

Mr. Lipton

Do we understand from the Prime Minister's statement that, where laxity of administration under the existing procedure has been established, certain civil servants in the establish- ment are to be disciplined? If so, is the question of the disciplining of any particular person to be left entirely to the First Lord of the Admiralty? Will the First Lord be making a statement in due course as to which employees are to be disciplined and what punishments are being imposed?

The Prime Minister

I do not want to go into that further, except to say that the Admiralty is now considering it. I must point out that when hon. Members have read the summary, they can ask further questions. As to the three persons criticised, one officer retired three years ago, another officer is due to retire within a month, and the third was a very junior executive—I think that he is called an Executive Officer of the Civil Service. The Admiralty will take the proper proceedings. I think it right to say that.

Mr. Doughty

Do not the facts leading to this inquiry and the result of this inquiry show that on many occasions people inside the Service may be suspect, and if they are, necessarily, rightly or wrongly, inquiries have to be made into their conduct, and is it not quite wrong that the people doing that should be criticised for indulging in a witch hunt?

The Prime Minister

That is the difficult balance which we have to get. Hon. Members will read the summary. What I say broadly is that the general system of security and the rules, though they may be altered by the Radcliffe Committee's Report, are not altogether unsatisfactory, but they have not been applied, I think, as efficiently by the procedures adopted by the Admiralty.

Mr. Dugdale

Is the Prime Minister aware that two or three years ago there was considerable disquiet about the security arrangements in the Admiralty over the Commander Crabb affair? Is it made clear in that Report that there have been some improvements since then, or are these continuing troubles from that time until now?

The Prime Minister

I think that that matter is rather a different question. The Crabb affair was wholly different from this. This is really a question whether the security system as regards establishments—it spreads right out into the contractors—is sufficient, given the pressures to which we are now subjected. I think that this report would be a great help to the Admiralty, and I know that the First Lord intends to implement the proposals. When we receive the Radcliffe Committee's Report, we shall have the advantage of all this evidence and then see whether some of the Radcliffe suggestions have to be adopted, and on that, I should like to suspend judgment. I have the greatest confidence in the members of the Radcliffe Committee. I think that it will give us a balanced Report, which will not go to the one extreme or the other.

Mr. G. Brown

Visiting responsibility, as I gather, on junior members of the establishment is hardly enough, is it? Would the Prime Minister say where Ministerial responsibility lies, and who is to accept responsibility for this, he himself or some other member of his Administration?

The Prime Minister

Perhaps the right hon. Member will wait until he has read the summary. I think that he will then see what the situation is. Certain improvements can be made and will be made. Responsibility lies, of course, with Ministers for everything that goes wrong—the First Lord and the collective Government as a whole. Of course, Ministers never get credit for things which go right, but they take responsibility for everything which goes wrong. I think that the approach we ought to make is to see how we can improve the situation without putting undue pressures on individuals.

Mr. Brown

That did not seem to deal with the question. The Prime Minister was at pains to tell us that somebody had resigned, somebody was about to resign, and somebody was very junior. I am asking him which Minister is to accept responsibility for a very considerable breakdown and what he proposes to do with that Minister?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Member will perhaps read the summary and then put further questions. Of course Ministers are responsible. I am responsible, the First Lord is responsible and the Government as a whole are responsible, but that is true of every action taken by any civil servant throughout the whole country.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

I think that we had better get on.

Following is the summary:


  1. 1. No criticism can be made of Houghton's appointment in 1951 as Clerk to the Naval Attaché in Warsaw. Nor can any criticism be made of want of action by the Naval Attaché or the Admiralty in the events leading up to his recall to London, before the expiration of his appointment, on account of his drinking habits.
  2. 2. Given the security criteria of the time, no legitimate criticism can be made of Houghton's subsequent appointment in 1952 to a post in the Underwater Detection Establishment at Portland which did not in itself involve access to secret material. It is regrettable, however, that the authorities at Portland were not informed about the reason for Houghton's recall from Warsaw.
  3. 3. No criticism can be made of Miss Gee's appointment to and subsequent retention at the Underwater Detection Establishment. At no time before the opening of the Security Service investigation in the middle of 1960 was there any ground for regarding Miss Gee with suspicion.
  4. 4. In 1954, an allegation was made to a junior official who was Houghton's immediate superior in the small section of the Underwater Detection Establishment in which Houghton worked that the latter was taking secret papers out of the Establishment. This official did not report the matter or take any other steps in regard to it apart from advising his informant to see the Security Officer or the police, and he is very much to blame for his inaction.
  5. 5. In 1956. Houghton was twice brought to the notice of the authorities in the Underwater Detection Establishment as a probable security risk. Insufficient investigations were made and a report which was both incomplete and misleading was submitted to the Admiralty. The Security Officer at the Establishment is gravely to blame for the casual way in which he dealt with this matter. Even so, the Captain of the Establishment should personally have ensured that proper inquiries were conducted and that the matter was fully reported to the Admiralty.
  6. 6. The main responsibility for the failure to make a proper investigation of Houghton in 1956 rests, therefore, with the authorities in the Underwater Detection Establishment at that time. The evidence discloses that there was a general want of "security mindedness" in the Establishment and responsibility for this must rest with the Captain of the Establishment. But the Admiralty, and the Security Service, although they received only an 217 incomplete and misleading report from Portland, cannot escape criticism for failing to press the matter to a positive conclusion.
  7. 7. With one minor exception the Committee found no inconsistency between Government security policy and the security rules issued by the Admiralty.
  8. 8. The Committee consider, however, that, apart altogether from the incidents in 1956, the Admiralty are to blame for the manner in which they discharged their responsibilities for security, particularly in regard to supervising security arrangements at Portland. In particular, the method of keeping the personal records of Admiralty civilian staff gave no certain means of ensuring that all the available information about the conduct and capabilities of individuals was to hand when they were considered for particular posts or when security doubts about them arose.
  9. 9. Lonsdale and the Krogers were in possession of genuine Commonwealth passports when they entered this country and no blame attaches to the immigration authorities, who had no grounds for supposing that these passports were fraudulently obtained and could not at that time have been warned by either the United States or the Canadian security authorities that either Lonsdale or the Krogers were spies.
  10. 10. There was subsequently no failure of liaison between the Security Service and the security authorities in the United States or any other country. Indeed, the circumstances in which Lonsdale and the Krogers were eventually detected and brought to justice are in themselves a convincing example of close and effective international security liaison.
  11. 11. The Committee do not believe that the Security Service or any agency acting on their behalf received or overlooked any possible "lead" which might have resulted in earlier identification of Lonsdale and the Krogers as spies while they were in this country: indeed, they consider that professional skill of a high order was shown in establishing the necessary evidence against them once such a "lead" had been received.

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